Wizards Play Final Game on Old Court
By Ruben Castaneda
They were the Washington Bullets then, led by Elvin Hayes, Wes Unseld and Phil Chenier. Their uniforms were red, white and blue, and their shorts ended considerably north of their knees.
On Dec. 2, 1973, with much pride and pomp, the Bullets opened play in Capital Centre, an $18 million state-of-the-art sports arena in Landover featuring a newfangled device a giant television screen suspended from the ceiling that showed instant replays in color and commercials during timeouts.
They are the Washington Wizards now, led by Chris Webber, Juwan Howard and Rod Strickland, their shorts just about reach their knees, and this season the American flag colors were junked along with the name "Bullets." Speaking of names, in a nod to corporate sponsorship, during the '90s Capital Centre became first USAir Arena and then US Airways Arena.
And last night, with an 88-83 loss to Michael Jordan and the NBA champion Chicago Bulls, the final buzzer sounded in the building that has been the team's home for 24 years. Beginning Tuesday, the Wizards will play at the $200 million MCI Center in downtown Washington.
The night was heavy on nostalgia and punctuated with a dash of flash. Bullets heroes from the past, including Earl "The Pearl" Monroe and Bobby Dandridge, greeted fans in the concourse area before tip-off and signed autographs.
Pop star Bruce Hornsby performed the national anthem, and at halftime, Unseld, Chenier and other Bullets greats, Monroe, Dandridge and Walt Bellamy, stepped onto the floor to take a last bow at US Airways Arena.
At halftime, four pieces of fabric emblazoned with symbols of Bullets history were lowered from the rafters: the team's 1977-78 NBA championship banner and the retired jerseys of Hayes, Unseld and the late Gus Johnson, a powerful forward who in 1971 became the first NBA player to break a backboard during a game with a thunderous dunk.
"I have mixed emotions. In some ways it's sad I spent a quarter of a century here. But I'm excited to be going to the MCI Center," team owner Abe Pollin said after the ceremony.
At the final buzzer, balloons in the Wizards new colors blue, bronze, black and white-floated through the arena and confetti rained on the fans. From now on or at least until their glitzy new, 20,000-seat, luxury suite-lined home becomes obsolete the Wizards will play in Washington.
"The old order changes," said Peter O'Malley, Pollin's attorney and a season-ticket holder since Capital Centre opened.
O'Malley, who attended last night's game, vividly remembered Capital Centre's first night, when Hayes, the "Big E," blocked two shots in the waning seconds to preserve a 98-96 victory over the Seattle SuperSonics before more than 17,000 delirious fans.
That opening night was actually in jeopardy until about three hours before tip-off. Throughout the day, construction workers labored furiously to install seats; it wasn't until 4 p.m. that Prince George's County building inspectors gave the arena final approval.
After the emotional victory, with the fans long gone, O'Malley and Pollin sat in the empty arena and talked about how good it all felt.
"Those of us who worked to make Capital Centre a reality, we felt like a band of brothers," O'Malley said. "It was a great sense of accomplishment."
And a seminal one, for professional basketball and hockey in the area.
Capital Centre was a key reason Pollin moved the Bullets to the Washington area from Baltimore, where the team was before the 1973-74 season. In 1974, the expansion Washington Capitals, also owned by Pollin, began playing there. (The Capitals had their final game at US Airways Arena on Wednesday, against the Montreal Canadiens. Now they also will play at MCI Center.)
Capital Centre was among the first of a series of sports venues built in suburbia in the early 1970s. During that time, Arrowhead Stadium, the home of the NFL's Kansas City Chiefs, opened just outside Kansas City, Mo., and the New England Patriots moved to a stadium in Foxboro, Mass.
"It was part of the early wave," O'Malley said.
The Capitals almost washed out of that wave a few years after Capital Centre was built. By 1982, they were bleeding money, and Pollin threatened to move, disband or merge the team with another unless he got concessions, including a reduction of Prince George's 10 percent amusement tax to one-half of 1 percent. Pollin said he had lost $21.6 million since the team's inception.
The County Council voted to give him the tax break for three years, with the tax rate gradually rising back to its original level after that.
Pollin and county officials say the Landover arena will continue to generate revenue for Prince George's, although how much remains unclear. Pollin has hired a Baltimore developer to convert it into an amateur sports facility for youth hockey teams and basketball leagues. The developer, David S. Cordish, also plans to ring the building with entertainment-oriented stores, movie theaters and restaurants.
Most fans don't remember the arena's political battles. They remember its games. And its birds.
"Over the years, you'd see birds flying around fairly regularly," said Washington lawyer Mike Fitzhugh, a Capitals season-ticket holder since 1987. "Pigeons and starlings and sparrows."
Maryland lobbyist Bruce C. Bereano has held season tickets for both teams since the 1970s. Indeed, with seats two rows from courtside, he sat near President Clinton last season when the president dropped in for a Bulls game. "It was exhilarating. I'd never been in the presence of a president before," he said. "Then Al Gore showed up for the playoff game."
Bereano was surrounded by political heavy hitters last night. His guests were former Maryland governor Marvin Mandel (D), who made the ceremonial opening toss when Capital Centre debuted nearly a quarter-century ago, and Prince George's County Executive Wayne K. Curry (D).
With great fondness, fans recalled how the Bullets enlisted a, well, fat lady to sit in the stands during the 1978 playoff games. That was the year the team trailed the San Antonio Spurs in the Eastern Conference finals, and Coach Dick Motta, borrowing a phrase from another venue, proclaimed, "It ain't over till the fat lady sings."
The Bullets' fat lady sang after home victories; the Bullets rallied to beat the Spurs and went on to defeat Seattle for the NBA championship.
Not all memories of the facility are as sweet. Fans disliked paying $7 for parking at the arena. The Bullets were mired in mediocrity or worse for most of the 1980s, and three times from 1985 to 1992, the Capitals led a playoff series by two games. Each time, they flamed out, losing the final game at home.
But none of that mattered to the people who came last night for the arena's curtain call. They said workers there were always friendly and solicitous, even when the Bullets-or Wizards-were struggling.
"It was like home," said Theodore Sample, a Wizards fan and Pentagon employee from Suitland. "There, you felt like you were part of the team."